Nobody has played more games for the Republic of Ireland Under-21 team than Conor Coventry.

Coventry not only occupies the central pivot in the Irish midfield but is the centre point of a squad that has gone through several personnel changes since the beginning of the campaign in September 2021.

A wise head on young shoulders, he is the latest in a long line of academy players at West Ham that have made the step-up into the first team.

"I've been at West Ham since I was kid," said Coventry.

"I worked for a long time to be around the first team there so to get the opportunity has been great.

"It's what I always wanted really, keep working hard and wanting more."

Coventry has made just two appearances so far this season for the Hammers, both off the bench, one coming in the Premier League and one coming in the UEFA Conference League.

West Ham spent over €185m this summer on the likes of Lucas Paqueta from Lyon, Nayef Aguerd from Rennes, Maxwel Cornet from Burnley, Thilo Kehrer from Paris Saint-Germain and Gianluca Scamacca from Sassuolo.

It has never been harder for academy players to break into teams operating at the top end of the English Premier League, but his club boss David Moyes saw value in keeping the former Academy Player of the Year around.

"In my head at the start I wasn't too sure if I’d go again or stay and eventually I spoke to the manager and he told me he wanted me to stay and I would get me as many minutes as I can.

"For me, as an academy graduate, a West Ham boy, ultimately I wanted to play for West Ham. That’s the decision I took."

Contrast to his club situation, Coventry's experience means he is one of the key components of Jim Crawford's team.

"I'd be one of the younger ones fighting for a place in the team whereas, here, I’m still fighting for a place but I’m more established, more experienced.

"It’s a different scenario, but with both it’s the same. You’re going out and playing football and your fundamentals need to be right. It’s easy to adapt between the two as long as you’re doing everything properly."

Conor Coventry and Declan Rice

Breaking into a midfield which contains the likes of Declan Rice and Thomas Soucek is no easy feat.

"I am in a place where I am ready to play, I want to play, I feel ready and hopefully I can keep showing what I can do in training, take any opportunities I get and hopefully they lead to more.

"I have been around with the first team training for a few years when I was not on loan so I know the quality, it's tough, there are some top players in there but I feel able for it."

Missing will be his midfield partner for much of this campaign, Gavin Kilkenny. The midfielder who broke through at AFC Bournemouth last season has gone on loan to Stoke City but has picked up an injury, a blow to Ireland's preparations.

"Gav Kilkenny is injured and he's missed it, and he’s gutted. I’ve been speaking to him and he’ll be in with us on Friday.

"We’ve had a few who have had tough injuries, they’re all gutted not to be here.

"The main thing is the togetherness of the group, and I think the personalities, we’ve been down and out a couple of times and we’ve come back and if it happens again in the play-off, we’ve been there, we’ve felt it.

"I think there is a real never say die attitude in the group."

While Coventry was on loan last season at MK Dons, he suffered his own play-off anguish as his side was beaten in the English League One semi-final by Wycombe Wanderers.

"The thing I took from it is you don't have to win it in the first ten minutes, and there is going to be ups and downs in the tie and there might be a stage we’re going through and might be a stage where you think we’re out.

"So that’s just the nature of it, you have to stay calm and remember that there is 180 minutes rather than the 90, and just be patient with it I think."

Jim Crawford speaks with Conor Coventry

His under-21 manager, Crawford has yet to put pen to paper on a new contract and even though Coventry is overage for the next campaign, he fully backs his manager to stay on.

"The real strength of Jim's is how well he gets to know the players, everyone feels really comfortable talking to Jim, he takes a real interest in all of our lives, our football and what we are doing off the pitch, he knows the group so well and the individuals within it," said Coventry.

"He will be calm, he trusts us, we trust the game plan that he puts in for us, he has done well so far in the campaign so he is definitely the right man.

"I'm not claiming to be Jim's agent but he has been great, as a player I have played under him for a while now, I can only speak highly of him, and thank him for the trust he has put in me, I think he has been outstanding."

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Watch the UEFA European Under-21 Championship play-off between the Republic of Ireland and Israel on Friday from 6.30pm (kick-off 7pm) on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player.